Rethinking the "unthinkable": An updated view of communism from Ike to Mao and beyond by Bob Avakian. 449 pp. 2005

How does a good California boy of the 50's, an elementary school "Traffic Boy" who loved Smilin' Ed's "Froggy the Gremlin," a high school quarterback ("a little guy, brimming with confidence"), a serious fan of basketball and music, and the son of a prominent judge go from a nine-year-old supporter of Eisenhower to a supporter of Mao Tsetung and the Chairman of today's Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (RCP)?

Bob Avakian lays it out in his memoir From Ike to Mao and Beyond.

Most of us don't really know much about Communism. Growing up, we have all been taught to fear and disparage it. Like Avakian, many Americans practiced hiding under their first grade desks in case of nuclear attack by "godless Communists." Like Avakian, many of us lived through the McCarthy witch hunts that found communists under every bush darkly working for the destruction of America.

Younger folks missed that, but they may have been around for the "Domino Theory" of Viet Nam ("gotta stop the communists now, or they'll eventually be invading us through Mexico). Folks younger yet, may remember Ronald Reagan, "the Gipper," ordering "the Evil Empire" to tear down the Berlin Wall.

In any case, most living Americans have never heard much of anything positive about Communism. In a sense, Avakian's book provides a refreshing rejoinder to the overwhelmingly one-sided view many of us have taken as a given.

Reading through the author's chronology, the fact of his progression from Eisenhower to Mao and beyond ? far from sounding inexplicable ? seems the most natural, rational, and heroic path he could have followed.

As a youth, confronted with the blatant racism of the time and the related dissembling of politicians (including Kennedy), Avakian chose to side with the people and with rationality. Living in Berkeley, fate brought him together with Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, and Huey Newton (movers in the emerging Black Panther Party). Avakian writes that his friends "saw themselves as heirs to Malcolm X . . . They had this revolutionary stance, they were indicting the whole system ? that's what they got from Malcolm X ? but they were calling for revolution too."

The Panther's view was, apparently, more radical than the contemporary Communist Party of that time (the Communist Party, USA ? the CP), which the author characterizes as less radical than Malcolm X, dedicated mainly to working "palatably" within the system, trying to appeal to the "mainstream," "the lowest common denominator."

At this point in his life he was not a communist but was searching for something that made sense, something that offered a real chance of addressing the overwhelming problems of the time. Not an easy undertaking.

We humans seem to be wide-awake searchers in our youth, but somewhere along the way arbitrarily shut down and glom on to something, anything ? the nearest "life raft" ? that offers some hope of respite from thinking, wondering, and doubt. From that point on, we need not think beyond the common propaganda shared by all who cling to our own particular delusion. Like pet parrots, we can eat, sleep, and rejoice within our cage of secure certainty.

That is what makes Avakian's path "heroic." A fundamental aspect of the "Communism" he describes is a steadfastly rational, scientific approach to understanding the world (no faith-based initiatives here). As such, bending the reality observed by his senses to the "reality" demanded by the moment, or the media, or by the dominant culture, or by intellectual fatigue; or even by the iconic example of Mao himself; was not acceptable ? regardless of the consequences. This stubborn insistence on facing the facts as they presented themselves led, inevitably, to his leadership of the RCP.

In 1967 visiting Eldridge Cleaver's apartment, the not-yet-communist Avakian was startled and confused by a large poster of Mao Tsetung hanging prominently on the wall. Cleaver explained, "We have that poster of Mao Tsetung on our wall because he is the baddest motherfucker on the planet earth." That was a start.

Avakian reiterates throughout the book a major theme: the Marxism/ Leninism/ Maoism he espouses is based on the foundation of science and truth. Today, perhaps more than ever, self-serving spin is promoted over truth in nearly every venue, and the scientific method is replaced by "faith" ? faith in our leaders, our nation, and religious authority. It was pretty much the same in Avakian's formative years, and he deserves credit for resisting it, demanding to search rationally for the hard facts of the situation we faced then.

Apparently, neither blind "faith" nor patriotism, nationalism, personal need, peer pressure, or anything else could turn him from his effort to honestly appraise the world he found around him. And, importantly for those who have heard nothing but negatives regarding communism, Avakian let the criticism he developed fall wherever he thought it was merited; addressing not only the brutality and imperialistic lust of the ruling class, but also the shortcomings of leftists and communist groups he felt had lost sight of the goal or historically had made honest mistakes in judgment along the way.

True to the notion that Marxism is a scientific effort, open to the development of a higher understanding that can allow avoidance of the mistakes of the past, Avakian readily admits the mistakes of earlier attempts at establishing a world free of "people who so viciously rule the world [and] oppress and exploit people in the most ruthless and murderous way," a world "under the domination of this system and the way it twists and distorts the relations among people and turns people into instruments either to be used for the amassing of wealth on the part of a relative handful, or else just to be thrown onto the scrap heap like so much useless material."

In addition to recounting a life lived during very interesting and important times; in addition to recounting his involvement with significant historical figures and events; beyond sharing his personal story; in From Ike to Mao and Beyond, Bob Avakian offers a fresh, new look at a system of thought that has, by some, been consigned to the "ash heap of history."

As we presently experience what many of us see as the demolition of everything America has claimed to be and to stand for over the years; as we experience the demonizing of gays, the suppression of women, the scapegoating of minorities, the "Christianizing" of what has been a secular, tolerant, diverse, open, and progressive society; as we witness the steady degradation of working people, the poor, the elderly, and the disabled; perhaps we are ready to entertain some doubt about all the negativity heaped on "Communism" over the years by folks like those presently destroying what many of us believe in.

Bob Avakian's new and innovative conception of "Communism" deserves consideration.

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